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January 2014 – Screen Forever 2013: The State of the Digital Union


by Andrew Einspruch

Filmmaker Andrew Einspruch attended Screen Forever 2013, the conference of Screen Producers Australia, this past year and wrote a series of articles for the event, which he’s kindly allowing us to reprint here. These articles originally appeared in Screen Hub, the daily online newspaper for Australian film and television professionals.

Video on demand (VOD), digital distribution, and the changes industry and consumers face every day were all over Screen Forever 2013. Andrew Einspruch digs through a piles of notes to find the jewels.

The world of screen entertainment and content is going VOD. That much is inarguable. Yes, there are issues, and yes, we’re not there yet (whatever your version of “there” happens to be). But it does not take much squinting to see that it won’t be that long before all content is delivered online, and it will be on demand for consumers to enjoy when, how and where they want.

Even so, you’d be forgiven for rolling your eyes, and thinking that, for now at least, it was more of a pain than it was worth. Or that it was too overwhelming. Or that it was impossible to make a decision about which way to go, or even if can do anything because of contracts signed long ago. Wendy Bernfeld, Managing Director of Rights Stuff, started a session called “Catching the Digital/VOD Wave” with the following common thoughts about VOD:

  • “Too complicated, time-sucking.”
  • “There’s no money in it.” or “I did a deal (once) and got a check for $100.”
  • “It’s OK for America/big brands, but doesn’t really apply in [insert country].”
  • “I can‘t get the [internet/mobile/VOD] rights” and/or “The [broadcaster/distributor/sales agent] took them/sat on them.”
  • “We’re blocked in [country] by [insert: legislation, tax, exhibitors, etc.].”
  • Who wants to watch movies on a [mobile/pc] anyway?

Any of those sound familiar? If you are a producer, the odds are good you’ve muttered at least one of them.
And yet... To embrace that mindset is to miss the opportunities that lurk in the tumult of the current environment. So let’s tease out some of this.

VOD is a catch-all phrase that barely tells you anything. When discussing the options, you have to add other letters to end up with an acronym that describes the model. Here are the common variants:

  • Transactional (TVOD) – you pay per transaction to rent or buy. (Examples: iTunes, Amazon Instant.)
  • Subscription (SVOD) – a regular fee charged, giving access to a library of titles. (Examples: Quickfix, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus.)
  • Advertising-Supported (AVOD) – ads are shown to users instead of charging them. (Examples: YouTube, Crackle, Hulu.)
  • Sale (EST/DTO) – “electronic sell-through” or “download to own” include a transfer of rights to the buyer, and the option to watch as often and for as long as wanted.
  • Ultra VOD – a premier service that charges a premium for on-demand access, for example a first-run release that is still in theatres.

These are distinct from free or catch-up services, which are usually streamed, downloaded, or downloaded temporarily, such as iView or the BBC’s iPlayer. Typically, catch-up rights are part of the original contract, and the producer does not make any additional money from these viewings.

Of course, these can be mixed and matched to meet the provider’s needs. iTunes, for example, has both rental and purchase options for their films. A quick look on the Internet will turn up dozens and dozens of VOD platform providers all over the world — some large, some small, some niche, some broad. Each represents an opportunity or possibility that may or may not be right for what you have.

Bernfeld made the point that producers should be looking at their back catalog, see what rights are there, and then make the effort to make as many deals as they can to get their work on as many platforms as are suitable. You should be able to strike non-exclusive deals that allow these multiple placements. You might not make a killing in any one place, but together, they can add up. Plus, Bernfeld said there has been a shift in the past 18 months, where for some producers and distributors, VOD has started contributing significantly to the bottom line.

What if a platform wants exclusivity with your film? You can still give it to them, but you have to make sure the amount you get paid makes it worth your while, or that the window of exclusivity is short enough that you don’t leave money on the table because of it. In the current environment, it does not make sense to give anyone, say, ten years of exclusivity for not much money. They might ask for it, but you should negotiate a better deal that reflects the market’s realities.

If you have a catalog with some depth, you might curate packages for particular platforms. These might be based on themes, like environmental films or women’s issues. If you have a catalog of 100 items, you might package up 30 of them and target these first to learn how to do it and see what results you get. Bernfeld also suggested that you don’t necessarily just stick to big brand platforms that you’ve heard of, like iTunes or Google Play. You just might find that smaller players could be more eager, and may target specific niches particularly well. So do your research.

Windowing of feature films is also an important concern. It used to be that a movie’s trajectory was rigid and predictable. The film would go in this order: festival, sales agent, distributor through theatrical, DVD, pay TV, thematic channels, free TV and the onto the shelf. That model is not as sustainable as it once was, and in some countries is stretched or falling apart. In others, it has become significantly more flexible, for creative, marketing and economic reasons and experimentation. These days, VOD rights can be exploited before, during or after the main screening or event. Films have online premiers, day-and-date releases, premium home cinema, and even reverse migration, where an online success pushes a film into the theatres.

The point is that the distinction between big screen and small screen is blurring, so you need to figure out what kind arrangement works best for your particular film. For many films, especially at the lower end of the market, a more do-it-yourself approach is called for. Addressing part of the DIY puzzle is Thomas Mai, CEO of FanDependent. At a master class he shared with Bernfeld called “Digging Into Digital”, Mai announced Releasr, a platform that helps filmmakers do two things: create a demand map for their film and manage ambassador screenings.

The demand map gives fans the chance to put up their hands and say they would like to see your film. You can embed the map on your site, and as more and more people indicate their interest, it can help you decide where you should schedule screenings. The ambassador screenings tool helps manage non-theatrical screenings of your movie. If someone wants to show it at home, at their film club, at the local church, or whatever, this tools helps you organise, publicise and manage those screenings.

Releasr is in its early days, but you can sign up to get in line for access. What about working with a traditional sales agent or distributor? They certainly still have their place, and plenty of films take that path. But if they are not active in the digital space, Bernfeld suggests you consider a hybrid agreement, that lets you pursue exploiting digital rights yourself, splitting an appropriate amount with them in recognition of the work they’ve done in other areas.

What if you are in the situation that someone has your digital rights, but is letting them gather dust? Bernfeld said that all might not be lost, and definitely not to sit back passively just hoping that something might happen. She has worked with producers, distributors, and sales agents on a case-by-case, and helped them find practical, creative solutions to the rights issues involved, so that individual VOD deals can be made that benefit all the parties involved. Find out more about this kind of deal-making and broader VOD possibilities by contacting Bernfeld through her web site Rights Stuff.

Mai picked up on this theme of taking control of your digital destiny. Technology, crowdfunding, alternative distribution — all these things help filmmakers go straight to the audience. “That is the game changer,” he said. Why? Because the person who has the access to the audience is the person who can take their money. Said differently, a filmmaker who can make a sale directly to the consumer is a filmmaker who does not have to take the crumbs that may or may not remain after an exhibitor and distributor takes their cut. The better you are at working with your audience, the better you are at reaching them and at talking with them, the more direct success you can have.

If you come to someone representing a crowd, you are move interesting to potential business partners, since you have access to that money. Mai showed the following YouTube clip as an example of whatever you are doing, there will be someone who wants to follow. Gathering those followers is a powerful thing:
This, of course, raises the question, how do you get to that audience, those followers?

Bernfeld and Mai suggested that exploring hashtags on Twitter and keywords in Facebook is a good way to start. You don’t look for your movie title or your name, but rather, the themes that your movie explores. So if you have a movie about hang gliding in African deserts, you could search for #hanggliding and #africandeserts or #deserts to try to see what people are talking about regarding those subjects. Yes, you will find a lot of mentions that have nothing to do with your angle on the topic, but there will be some. That’s what you hone in on.

So phase one is to see what people are doing. Phase two, then, is to participate and engage with the audience. You don’t just push an advertising message. You don’t start with, “Hey, go buy my movie.” Instead, you seek to be useful and interesting to those who share your passion. It is a pull strategy through engagement. Bernfeld cited one project where the filmmakers posted useful articles to Twitter, such as relevant research about their subjects. In that case, they went from zero to over 100,000 followers in a few short weeks. They were then able to use their significant social media presence to help land a more traditional distribution deal.

The good thing about this is that you can do this for very little cost. It just takes time. But this kind of research and connection gives you insight into who your followers are, and what they find important. You may even find useful contacts who can become advocates for your film. Bernfeld and Mai emphasised that this works for both fiction and non-fiction. It might be more obvious with documentaries, since they normally have easily identifiable themes. But you can do the same with dramas. Is it about mental illness? Alcoholism? High school wrestling? Hone in on the themes, and find the audience that is interested in them.

Andrew Einspruch is a producer with Wild Pure Heart Productions. His latest projects are the feature film The Farmer, and the web series Wisdom from the Paddock. You can follow him on Twitter at @einspruch and Facebook at Andrew Einspruch.

Wendy Bernfeld can be reached on Twitter @wbernfeld, by email at  wbernfeld@rights-stuff.com, or at https://www.rights-stuff.com/. Thomas Mai can be reached through his web site https://thomasmai.net/, and you can follow him on Twitter @festivaldarling.